Wetpixel Interview with photographer Michael Muller

©Michael Muller / Taschen / CPi Syndication

Michael Muller has just published a book with Taschen titled Sharks. Face-to-Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator. Muller is a well known celebrity photographer who has worked for decades photographing musicians, artists, athletes and actors, but what is lesser well known is his passion for sharks and the ocean. This book features his shark portfolio using his “patented seven-bulb, 1200-watt plexi-encased strobe lighting rig”. Wetpixel had the chance to interview Muller and find out more about his life behind the lens above and below water.

Wetpixel: How long have you been taking photographs? Underwater? When did you start pursuing photography as a career?

I have been taking photographs for 30 years, I started 30 years ago. Snowboarding and rock and roll photography, was my beginning, as a young teenager actually. That was when the sport of snowboarding first started. My friend actually published the first snowboarding calendar. And was getting published in magazines. At the same time I was shooting U2, Rolling Stones, all the biggest rock bands in the world, before the internet. I was hustling a little bit. I would call the record companies and say I was shooting for the local papers, which I wasn’t, and then I would get the photo pass. Started meeting with big bands and record labels.

For underwater photography, actually the first camera I ever received was an underwater camera, when I was eleven or twelve years old, in Saudi Arabia. It was a Minolta Weathermatix, a yellow underwater film camera. The first time I really realized the power of photography was due to when I took a photo with that underwater camera of a shark from a National Geographic magazine, a photo of a photo, processed the film, then took the photo of the shark and showed my friends, who had thought I took a photo of a shark at that age and they were impressed. I then fessed up that I really hadn’t. But, I then saw the power of photography at a young age.

I didn’t get serious about underwater photography until about 2004 when I started this email campaign, which I shot for about nine years, Michael Phelps, all the Olympic swimmers. And that was at the same time as 2005 when I started this shark project. About ten years ago is when I really got into underwater photography.

©Michael Muller / Taschen / CPi Syndication

Wetpixel: So, Sharks. Face-to-Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator. Where did the idea to photograph sharks come from?

I had a fear/fascination with great whites since I was a kid. Jaws. I think I wanted to find a way to go photograph great white sharks, but my wife beat me to the punch and got me a great white shark trip for my birthday. I went out to Guadalupe Island and I shot great white sharks for the first time just by myself, with tourists, there were 12 other people on the boat. And from that moment, really I was hooked. And I saw that first great white and I thought, “this is amazing.” I came back home and shortly thereafter started thinking about shooting sharks with lights. I can’t bring the shark to the studio, I have to bring the studio to the shark. So, I assumed that there would be lights to do this with, I looked online to find lights, and they pretty much didn’t exist. I was sure there would be underwater lighting. 100 watt strobe lights you put on your housing that everyone around the world uses for light and then there’s the big movie lights with a generator the size of a truck. So, those are my two options, neither of which will work. And two lights on arms on your housing cannot light up a 20-foot creature in front of you. You can’t edge light, you can’t do all these things, so, I needed over lights. So, that’s how I first set out to do this project. I got ripped off by the first person that tried to put it all in a box, he told me to put the battery and the strobe and everything in it. I paid a lot of money for that box!

He made housings for cameras and he said he could make these lights. And then we enlisted an engineer from NASA. And I came back from that first shark trip and the president of IWC watches came over to my house. I’d been putting those watches on celebrities, not asking for anything in return. He was in town from Europe, and they brought him over to meet me. And I showed him the shark photography from that shark trip and I told him about this light I was making. He gave me their Aquatimer campaign on the spot, which is their biggest campaign of the year. Every four years they rotate and they sent me to the Galapagos. I told them about these lights, which I didn’t have. I wouldn’t have them for another 6 months. And I got the lights before I left for the Galapagos. I went out to my pool, jumped in, tried them out, shot about 10 frames, the lights work. And I packed them up for Galapagos. We were on a boat for two weeks straight, didn’t touch land for two weeks, and ended up crushing that campaign with amazing imagery. That trip was from the boat and the level of photos that I had. This is what my life, like everything had lead to that point. I brought the commercial photography to what nature photography had never seen before. It was the commercial world and nature photography, they almost didn’t seem to coexist.

And I also found out we were killing 100 million sharks a year, which I had no idea. At that point I really had a vision. A book on sharks. The goal was to have a great white coming up being lit by a light, and then turn a page and tell them that we’re killing a 100 million of them. Turn a page. Tell them where they can go to help. So that was one of the many things that sent me in the direction of sharks and awareness. That was the inception.

©Michael Muller / Taschen / CPi Syndication

Wetpixel: Would you describe your underwater shark images as being documentary or artistic?

I would probably use both words to describe them, my photography of sharks. I definitely have an artistic approach, like they’re pieces of art. At the same time I’m documenting their natural environment. And I’m using lights to do that, which is just a different angle.

The last 10 years I’ve actually been able to capture behavior no one has ever seen. That was very meaningful, especially the great white breaching at nighttime. No one had seen it, no one had documented it, I mean we’re talking shark specialists through the world had no idea. So to me, to be able to capture that was a really fulfilling goal that I had set out for years to get that one photo. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and multiple trips to South Africa with big crews and lights. So that was amazing to capture.

Of course on the last day of the second trip, and it breached. And it didn’t just breach once, it breached twice. The first time it did it, you know it’s all dark out. We don’t have a spot on the decoy, so it’s black. And all we see is a little white water, a little white water explosion. It did it, I saw the white water, and I hit the button on the camera too quick. I got too excited and the photo had just the head popping up. I was like oh my god I can’t believe it! So, I picked the camera back up to my eye and about 8-seconds later it did it again, and I waited a tenth of a second and captured it fully out of the water. So, the fact that it breached twice on the same decoy was a mini-miracle.

Wetpixel: How long did it take to plan for each shoot?

Each shoot presented its own challenges. You had to see that what we were doing had never been done before. There was no previous road map. Great whites and tiger sharks, different depths, taking lights down at night, surging seas, lots of things, 140-foot cables, underwater and on top of the water, different species. With every shoot there were different challenges. I have a group of assistants, I think it was exciting for all of us. When you do something you’ve done many times, there isn’t that fulfillment. Together as a team we figured out solutions. It was a great team effort. The challenges and the dangers. People always ask me about the dangers. There isn’t really danger. That’s sort of the point of this book, to lessen the demonizing that is going on with these animals. But really, we are not on their menu. All the dangers come with scuba diving, all the dangers come with manmade dangers, like decompression sickness, getting the bends, staying down too long, coming up too quick, the cables and the lights.

Wetpixel: What equipment did you use to capture the images?

So, the lights that I manufactured, camerawise, I use Phase One, medium format. I’ve used Nikon D800, Canon Mark II, Mark III. So, Canon, Nikon and Phase One were my image making tools. Subal housings and Nauticam for my Phase One.

©Michael Muller / Taschen / CPi Syndication

Wetpixel: What was the most enjoyable part of the project?

The whole project was enjoyable, I don’t think I can really – and it still is happening. You know, having the book for the first time, holding the book. I just signed 1,200 limited edition pages, I can’t wait for that to come out. It’s an oversized book that comes in a shark cage. And there’s a film, that’s documented the last 10/11 years: the expedition, putting the shark posters up, everything, we filmed it all.

Wetpixel: Do you have any idea how many dives you have made capturing the images for the book?

Hundreds of hours and hundreds of hours of traveling.

Wetpixel: What were the most challenging sharks to photograph and work with?

I would say probably tiger sharks, because they’re very skittish. Very skittish of people, so, to get them close is always a challenge.

Wetixel: Sharks vs. celebrities?

I love both of them. I definitely get a deeper fulfillment shooting wildlife, sharks, than celebrities. But, at the same time I’m a human being and I love the human contact I have with “celebrities” or people that have gifts in their artistic endeavors whether they be music, or athletes or whatever. I’m very humble and I appreciate that I’m at a place I’m at in my career to meet these people. But, I’ve always been a true believer in we all share the same sky we all breathe the same air.

Wetpixel: We know you’ve worked with WildAid and Earth Eco. What would you say is the greatest threat to Sharks?

We, us, humans. We are by far the greatest threat to sharks and pretty much to the ocean as a whole.

Wetpixel: So Sharks, what’s next?

You’ll have to wait and see. I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on next. I’d rather you just keep your eye out for my next project.

Wetpixel: Do you think that photographers can be a force for good or change? Do you think that pro photographers are seeking to engage more with marine issues?

Yes, I 100% think we can change and alter the course of humanity. Look at Tiananmen Square. People saw that guy standing in front of the tank. Rodney King, it’s video, but documenting it. We have to tell these stories. I’ve definitely seen more and more with underwater photographers the conservationist message. I don’t think you can continue to dive day after day, year after year, and not see what we’re doing to the ocean and not have it impact you, and not want to say something. It’s really just monumental what’s happening out there. It really is scary.

©Michael Muller / Taschen / CPi Syndication

Wetpixel: What is your most hair-raising (underwater) event so far? The most difficult shoot technically? Additionally, which shoot has been the most demanding physically?

I don’t think I’ve really had any hair-raising events. It was definitely technically challenging shooting the great whites. We had to be in cages, we are talking about a 15-20 foot animal, huge, that will mess someone up. So, that was by far the most challenging. Technically. That and Fiji, going down 80-feet. Anytime you’re dealing with depths, you deal with less time underwater; you deal with the bends, and with all the currents and surging seas. So, those were the two most technically challenging.

Wetpixel: If you had to name someone that has inspired you photographically, who would that be?

I get more inspiration from painters than I do other photographers. I really try not to look at much photography. I want to get inspired by myself. I’m trying to raise the bar on a daily basis.

Wetpixel: How much post processing do you do? How much is acceptable?

I do very little. Process the RAW file, color temperatures, and the look of the picture. And after I do that, which takes 45-seconds to a minute, I spend probably two minutes in Photoshop or less with curves. So, I think I’m just putting my fingerprint on it. Very minimally. And that process, whether it’s Bridge or Capture One, that’s really where people should put their time and effort. But, I do all of that myself. I’m really a hands on photographer. But I really think there’s way too much post processing done these days.

Wetpixel: Media rich capture devices are blurring the creative process. How do you see the future with still cameras catching video, cell phones capturing hi res images and video, and people looking at them on tablet computers?

It’s crazy how fast it’s going. Cameras are right there in front of us. Devices are getting more powerful, whether it be your cell phone or digital camera. I have a RED camera that I shoot in 6k that you can blow up any still image and have a great image. I tell all my cameramen I don’t need 120 megapixels, what I need is fast, I need to shoot 4 frames a second. More light, less noise, all those things. And I’m sure the time will come where you can do the entire shoot on an iPhone – the most popular camera in the world. Every time you take a photo, you’re learning. When I was learning, every time I took a photo it was $3. Each frame was $3. I spent time thinking about it, framing it and thinking about it. And now, with digital there’s no price. So people go to A to Z fast. Nothing we can do about it. The days of film are over.

Find out more and purchase Sharks. Face-to-Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator here, including a limited edition copy enclosed in a shark cage.

You can also follow Michael and his work on Instagram: MichaelMuller7